Friday, January 28, 2011

Universally Rejected

One element of what I love about the internet is that random pieces of hilarity like this show up, The Journal of Universal Rejection. It perfectly illustrates one of the silliest paradoxes of academic culture, while working on multiple levels, especially given the weird philosophy I’ve been working on.

So the first interpretation I’ll explore is the simple satire. Academic journals have a way of measuring their relative prestige that I find remarkably strange. A journal gains prestige based on how many submissions they reject. Now, there are other criteria of prestige, like the age of the journal, the number of articles it has published that became pivotal in the evolution of its field, the reputations of its editors or regular contributors. But the shorthand prestige marker is the sheer statistical likelihood (or lack thereof) of actually having your submitted essay accepted for publication. If a PhD candidate like me gets an essay published in a journal with a 75% rejection rate, an established (if snobbish) professor or colleague may dismiss it as a relatively unimportant venue. “Oh, you had a one in four chance. Anyone could have made that!” But if you make it into a journal with a 95% rejection rate, that garners much more prestige.

Of course, anyone who actually knows how statistics works knows that this reduction of a peer evaluation, editing, and selection process to a fraction (1/4, 1/20) is a hideous oversimplification of an extremely complex process. But in most conversation, even among the supposedly most educated members of the human population, this little number is all that matters.

Academics themselves often take the criteria of a high rejection rate for granted, I think just because they’ve been acculturated to the idea for so long. Like the best satire, the Journal of Universal Rejection takes this simple principle and carries it to its logical extreme, so we can see how stupid it really is for measuring the worthiness of a journal. If a higher rejection rate equals greater prestige, then the most prestigious possible journal will have the highest possible rejection rate: 100%. Literally no essay is good enough for its high standards.

We find this ridiculous, but the principle we’ve used to arrive at the ridiculous is taken for granted and makes perfect sense. If we’re as intelligent as we say we are, we re-evaluate just how useful for living is this principle that we’ve never bothered to question before. This is how satire can sometimes push us into ambitious and interesting philosophy.

As I thought about it this morning, The Journal of Universal Rejection also has some meaning for my own ideas about ethics based on singularity. One of the problems I face when trying to articulate this ethical point of view is that it seems to paralyze activity. It starts from a principle that’s arrived through an ontological investigation, an examination of how the world is. That principle is that every situation and every individual is a singularity, a unique body that differs at least in some degree from every other. The result is that any universal principle or proposition will be a generalization that misses some of the singular features of the bodies to which it applies. A proposition that applies to many bodies in common won’t take into account various differences among those bodies. If it did, then it wouldn’t be able to apply to all of them.

This means that any universal proposition can’t be necessarily valid: some difference among its members that the proposition doesn’t account for can create effects that render the proposition useless. To put it more poetically: Reality rebels against any attempt at unity. Or to put it more happily: Existence can surprise us at any time.

In order for a set of universal principles and propositions to hold, those rebellious features of reality have to be set aside. If the people who hold those universal principles and propositions want to maintain the widespread belief in the truth of their system, they have to convince people that these rebellious singularities do not in fact exist. The universal principle rejects the reality that surprises it. If enough of reality becomes surprising to the universal system that the rejections can no longer be ignored, then the system becomes ridiculous, like a government or corporation that denies reality.

Think of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad telling the United Nations that there are no homosexuals in Iran, or a British Petroleum executive telling Louisiana residents that there isn’t anything serious about Deepwater Horizon. These statements become ridiculous because reality has escaped their systems of universal propositions which tell us that the singularities we can plainly see cannot possibly exist.

From ontology to ethics to politics in four paragraphs. Would anyone try to say philosophy is useless now?

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